Del Shores, that grand master of Southern lowlife sensibilities, has once again culled his Texas roots and come up with a winner. The award-winning scripter of such legit hits as “Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will?”, “Sordid Lives” and “Southern Baptist Sissies” peruses the life and times of abused but valiant stay-at-home trailer park housewife Willadean Winkler (Beth Grant) as she attempts to transcend the mean existence inflicted on her by cruel-to-the-bone hubby J.D. (David Steen). Shores, who also helms, manages to fully explore Willadean’s horrific plight while infusing the work with such hilarity the audience is often reduced to tears and laughter within the same breath.
Set in a small Texas town, the action takes place mostly in the interior of Willadean’s neat but sparse trailer. Despite her constantly stated mantra, “I am not gonna shrivel up and die,” she is a woman without options.
Forbidden to work by hard-drinking J.D. (who earns only a meager income himself as an asphalt hauler), Willadean’s only respites from her misery are the afternoon TV talk show sessions she shares with neighbor and best friend LaSonia (Octavia Spencer), her efforts to improve herself by learning one new word a day from the dictionary and her memories of her departed children. Her rebellious daughter died in a car crash at 16 and her gay son was kicked out of their house by his father. Willadean is forbidden to mention them or display their photos in J.D.’s presence.
Grant thoroughly inhabits Willadean’s soul, instilling in her an unquenchable vivacity that radiates from within no matter what degradation is being heaped upon her. It is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring to witness Willadean’s placating cheerfulness as she marshals all her attention and energy to serve her besotted despot. It is only when she witnesses J.D.’s late night drunken tryst with their new trailer neighbor, the much-traveled waitress Rayleen (Dale Hickey), that Willadean makes the courageous but dangerous decision to change her life.
The comedic highlights of the production are Willadean’s sessions with LaSonia and Rayleen (prior to the infidelity). Spencer’s LaSonia (“pronounced like the Italian noodle”) is a rock bed of down home common sense and stability who is quick to love and just as quick to condemn. Her opinion of Rayleen is succinct: “Well, she is trash that will not burn.” Dickey’s woebegone Rayleen certainly lives up to LaSonia’s assessment. Lacking even a modicum of intelligence or common sense, Rayleen desperately wants to fit in somewhere and have friends but is totally helpless to fend off J.D.’s sleazy advances.
Steen, an acclaimed scripter of such notable legit works as “A Gift From Heaven” and “Avenue A,” is as riveting as he is hateful as the former high school star athlete, who takes out his subsequent failures in life nightly on his wife. Steen’s J.D. is a monument to self-loathing who spouts biblical justification for his subjugation of Willadean and exudes a spirit-crippling negativity just by walking into a room.
Shores utilizes accomplished and winsome pop vocalist Debby Holiday as a blues singing Greek chorus to the action, offering beautifully performed commentary to Willadean’s plight while also serving to bridge the scenes. She is ably accompanied by music director/pianist Joe Patrick Ward who composed the thematically appropriate songs in collaboration with producer Sharyn Lane and Shores.
Robert Steinberg’s set impressively displays the claustrophobic intimacy of the Willadean’s trailer while also detailing other locations, such as the beer bar where J.D. constantly hits on Rayleen. Craig Taggart’s costumes are on the mark, especially Rayleen’s hilariously tawdry short-shorts and bare midriff tops.